Oldies but Goodies – Rhino from BigTick
Rhino … well, it just has to be said … is beast of a synth. Under its simple-looking interface is a sophisticated and powerful instrument that’s most worthy of your attention.
by David Baer, May 2015
In this installment of Oldies but Goodies, we’re going to take a close look at Rhino from BigTick, the first version of which appeared around 2004. It has been kept current by its developer, Patrice Tarabbia. It was upgraded to 64-bit in a timely fashion, and a new version with some added filter types appeared just last year.
About four years ago, there was a no-brainer sale in which Rhino went for a ridiculously low price. That was when I picked it up, probably along with a few thousand other people. I installed it and promptly forgot about it. After all, how can one expect that something so inexpensive would be any good? But with the arrival of the latest version, it luckily reclaimed my attention. I was, frankly, blown away by just how good it sounded.
Patrice Tarabbia is a New York City resident who came from France. After many years working in the IT industry as a software engineer, he decided to follow his passion for music and founded BigTick in 1999 to develop music software. His initial products were some effects – Dual Delay, Hexaline and a wave shaping effect called Makunouchi Bento (named after the band for whom it was commissioned). Shortly after, he developed a synth named Rainbow, which was a four-oscillator FM synth with an analog-style filter, a wave shaper and some other goodies. Several other synth designs followed, including a strings ensemble, a clavinet physical model and an FM electric piano.
The natural evolution of Rainbow was Rhino, an FM synth with six oscillators, flexible envelopes and more which we will look at in depth shortly. It was originally PC-only but Mac support followed. Patrice is proud of the fact that it was the very first synth to feature macro controls.
Part of the Rhino story must include a mention of Daniel Maurer, a wonderfully talented sound designer. He not only contributed the majority of Rhino’s sounds, he helped shape the evolution of the instrument in suggesting new features.
Rhino is probably at the end of its development, but that’s no reason to dismiss it as obsolescent. There’s great depth and capability here, far more than the no-nonsense UI and the economical nineteen-page manual would lead one to believe. So, let’s jump right in.
Rhino supplies six oscillators. These can be employed in a standard FM fashion – so standard, in fact, that DX7 patch libraries can be directly imported and put to immediate use. But there’s much more to the oscillators. Not only can they produce basic wave forms, they can be loaded with SFZ file sounds, turning the oscillator into more of a sample-playback device. And then there’s the oscillator modulation capability – rather a lot of it, in fact. More on that shortly.
A routing matrix is used to define the FM modulation setup. This is the grid in middle of the bottom row which can be seen in the UI image above. It is well-explained in the manual and I won’t bother to rehash that here. Suffice it to say that any DX7 algorithm can be achieved. But the matrix also defines routing with respect to filtering and ring modulation.
Each of the six identical oscillators has a tab on the UI that occupies the upper two rows in the image above. What’s there might look rudimentary, but there’s much that is not obvious. For example, one of the sub-windows controls keyboard tracking modulation. But what you don’t see is that there are actually twelve different modulations that can be defined here, as can be seen to the right.
The envelope and velocity/aftertouch controls also are multi-purpose. The level of control is extensive and impressive. But none of this is particularly obvious or intuitive. One really must read the manual to understand all that’s there.
And this is a good time to mention the documentation. Yes, it’s brief, and yet it seems to be complete. There’s a great economy in how it was written, and concentrated study is required. But, again, do not interpret the brevity of the documentation to mean that features are lacking.
There are numerous factory waveforms that can be loaded into an oscillator, well organized into categories like attacks, loops, noise, single-cycle, etc. There is also an additive wave definition capability (done using the tab shown below) that can be used to construct any single-cycle waveform. Of course, any external waveforms can also be brought in, and, as stated earlier, sample sets defined in the SFZ format are supported. Rhino also employs its own custom multi-sample file format, which is explained in the documentation.
The envelopes we’ve seen so far in the UI images look to be of the fairly conventional ADSR variety. Once again, do not be fooled by the simple look. They can employ multiple segments, for starters. But the really impressive features are the capabilities for envelope time modulation. I’ll defer to the documentation for details, but suffice it to say that the inspired design is as elegant as it is flexible.
A pair of filters is on board, either of which can be set to one of twenty-six types (listed to the right). These include, for example, three resonant low-pass filters (12 dB, 24 dB and 36 dB per octave slopes) and another three “analog” versions of the same. Filter routing configuration is pretty much anything the sound designer wants since it is specified in the routing matrix. Any combination of serial and/or parallel can be set up, including feedback.
And then there’s the filter wave shaper. The filter output can be altered using this, but there’s even more. The filter wave shaper can actually morph between two curves and this, of course, can be modulated. I hate to sound repetitious, but yet again there’s so very much more here than meets the eye.
There are two slots into which to place effects. The available effects number twenty in total, and include a selection of delays, choruses, reverbs, modulators (e.g., phaser) and more. One could argue that two slots are insufficient, but then one could also argue that many sound designers go overboard in the application of effects. The great sounds in Rhino prove this point, to my way of thinking.
And what great sounds there are, mainly courtesy of Daniel Maurer as mentioned earlier. He not only is responsible for a majority of the factory sounds, but also produced a number of excellent add-on libraries. These include ClassicMoog (just what the name implies), ClassicOB (Oberheim-derived/inspired sounds), Morpheus (evolving pads) and Modern Analog Designs (analog sync, sweeps and growls, mangled into rich textures, loops, leads, and other unusual sounds). Ten other banks round out the add-on library options, available here, all at reasonable prices:
Sound selection is done via the bank list or the library list, as seen in the image above. The bank list is reminiscent of the way we use to do things with early MIDI keyboard instruments. The library browser mechanism, while nothing to get excited about, is serviceable. The factory content, a generous number of presets, is nicely organized into categories.
What is something to get excited about, however, is the sound quality itself. Of course, everyone has different criteria about what constitutes a great sound. For me, a quality preset collection must offer, more than anything else, much musically useful content. By that I mean: skip the FX patches, keep the soundscape material, go light on ambience. Give me presets that would excite a prog-rock composer and I’ll be smiling (not that I boast of being a prog-rock composer myself but those are the kinds of sounds that I find stimulating).
So, there you have it: Rhino: somewhat of an oldie but most assuredly an instrument that delivers the goods. A “goodie” if ever there was one!
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